Desperately fleeing their homes, the men, women, and children of western Mosul walk in overwhelming numbers on a dusty and devastating path away from their city. Some find haven in the homes of friends and families, but the majority head hopefully towards overcrowded refugee camps – only to find there is no longer any room. As Iraqi government security forces now begin their offensive on western Mosul, an already dire humanitarian situation is likely to become even more disastrous.

While 400,000 civilians have already been liberated from ISIS control in eastern Mosul, the the fight for the west will not only be more important, but also increasingly difficult and disastrous for the civilian population that lives there. The fighting is expected to be more challenging because western Mosul’s dense population will prevent tanks and armored vehicles from easily maneuvering the city. Lieutenant Colonel Muntadher, the commander of the Mosul counter-terrorism brigade, describes the difficulty of fighting in western Mosul: “I have never seen such hard fighting like this one, not because they have good fighters here… no the hardest fighters were in Ramadi, but here it’s maddening to fight amongst the civilians. Our soldiers have to be very careful.”

There is, indeed, deep concern for the estimated 750,000 civilians who are still stuck in western Mosul. Fighting has cut off water supplies for about 650,000 people, leaving families without basic needs. This has allowed ISIS to take advantage of the current situation and control fighting within the territory, imposing a quasi-siege. Additionally, reports show that ISIS is not only shooting civilians attempting to leave the city, but is also forcing people from the countryside into the city to be used as human shields.

While those conditions are similar to the perils civilians faced in the battle for eastern Mosul, the largest difference in western Mosul is the overwhelming number of civilians attempting to flee the city. While about 180,000 civilians have left since the latest assault began on February 19 and are taking refuge in nearby camps, in the coming weeks, about 300,000-320,000 civilians are expected to evacuate from the western districts. The UN has warned that in total, the offensive could displace up to 400,000 total people, adding to the international community’s already complicated refugee problem.

Conditions in the camps are dismal, with food, water, and medicine increasingly scarce and children exhibiting signs of severe trauma. Due to the vast influx of people attempting to make it into the camps, thousands arrive every few hours to wait for spaces. Many end up sleeping on the ground outside the overflowing refugee camps because there is no more space.

Recapturing Mosul in its entirety is essential in the fight against ISIS because recapturing the city would be the beginning of the end of ISIS’s ability to control large swaths of Iraq. Yet while this offensive is crucial, the trade-off will be the lives of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis. With civilians representing a staggering and unprecedented 50% of the casualties in Mosul so far, residents of western Mosul must choose between living in the midst of a treacherous urban battle or escaping to overloaded refugee camps. Lisa Grande, the UN Humanitarian Coordinator in Iraq explains the long-lasting consequences of this campaign: “When Da’esh is defeated in Iraq, that’s a military success, but the humanitarian crisis is a legacy-it just keeps going.”

At Grieboski Global Strategies (GGS), we help nations develop a strong and secure society through improving humanitarian aid efforts. Human rights, especially those of freedom of movement, are key ideologies at GGS. We advise international stakeholders on the best ways to monitor human rights issues, draft protective legislation, and relieve ongoing suffering. At GGS, we will continue to do our part to assist refugees and ensure that Iraqi families in western Mosul are not forgotten in this crucial military moment.